Porn star Lorelei Lee talks obscenity

An actress at the center of the case against John Stagliano opens up about the darker sides of the adult business

Topics: Pornography, Broadsheet, Sex, Love and Sex,

Porn star Lorelei Lee talks obscenity

Last week, jurors watched nearly an hour of “Milk Nymphos” in the federal obscenity trial against pornographer John “Buttman” Stagliano. Headphones were provided, two TV screens were directed at the jury box, and 14 strangers were asked to perform their civic duty by drinking in, so to speak, this decidedly unwholesome ode to dairy enemas.

The coverage of the case, which was dismissed late Friday thanks to sloppy work by the Justice Department, largely focused on the legendary “Buttman” — but I kept thinking about the women in the film. What must it be like to be the focus of a rare federal obscenity trial in Washington, D.C., to have your work broadcast for people who hadn’t sought it out, to be evaluated in terms of “community standards,” offensiveness and “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific” merit?

What better person to answer these questions than Lorelei Lee, one of the stars of “Milk Nymphos” and countless other films made during her decade in the adult industry. Fresh off a plane from D.C., the 29-year-old New York University grad student spoke with me by e-mail about everything from the aesthetics of porn to the eroticization of racial epithets to how being a barista compares to having sex for pay.

You motioned to have your real name withheld from the proceedings — why was that important for you?

While most of the fan mail that I receive is positive, I’ve also received a number of e-mails that have been pretty frightening. For my own safety, my professional name is the one that I use in every public context. There was never a need for my legal name to be revealed in open court. The prosecutor’s claim that using my professional name would give me an “air of legitimacy” was incredibly insulting.

You were sequestered for the trial but ultimately didn’t have to testify, since the case was dismissed. What would you have said in defense of Stagliano?

Part of my job as a witness was to take the jurors through the process of the film’s production. I would have described the health and safety precautions taken — mandatory 28-day STD testing, the extensive hygiene process before an anal or on-camera enema scene. One of the allegations against John was that these films were scatological — I wanted to be sure the jurors understood that this wasn’t true.

I would have described the art and artifice of the filming process — to emphasize that what we’re doing is creating a performance — with stops and starts and retakes, and hundreds of aesthetic decisions being made throughout — rather than simply going into a room with a camera and fucking.

We also discussed the possibility of my testifying to the reasons I make these kinds of films. I think this imagery is important as a contrast to the majority of mainstream representation of women’s sexuality. The prevailing message women receive is that sexual aggression is unfeminine, that a woman’s primary sexual role is as regulator of male desire — to say yes or no, but not to pursue desires of our own. Women are still often taught that sexy is the same as “pretty,” that it means dressing a certain way and then waiting to be approached. These films show women being sexually aggressive and powerful in a way that sometimes isn’t pretty, but is definitely sexy.

Lastly, I might have talked specifically about the eroticism of some of the less often understood acts in the film, such as enema play and “cum swapping.”

What would you say to folks who are offended by the content in “Milk Nymphos” — or any of your other work?

Well, first I would say: Don’t watch it. I don’t make these films in order to be shocking or confrontational. I make them for the audience that seeks them out. There is a community of people who find these films hot, erotic, joyful and even beautiful. Those are the people who I hope see this imagery.

Second, I would say that of the many ideals this country is founded on, the freedom of speech is, I think, one of the most cherished. Because we live in a country that presumably doesn’t censor ideas no matter how unpopular, we are able to better cultivate our own individual belief systems — one of the ways we learn what we believe in is by encountering language and imagery that we disagree with or have strong reactions to. The best ideas come out of reckoning with the unfamiliar.

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Less frequently mentioned in the coverage of the trial was the fact that “Milk Nymphos” stars two white female performers, including yourself, and a black male co-star, and the N-word is used a couple of times. What do you make of this politically offensive side of porn?

What you’re referring to is Annette Schwartz using the N-word when talking to Jon Jon during the “Milk Nymphos” scene I also performed in. She says, “Give me that n—- cock,” and similar phrases. It isn’t a word that I’m comfortable using or hearing. I’ve talked about this a lot with my fellow performers, and particularly with my African-American co-stars, and I can understand the eroticism of it in the same way that I can understand the eroticism of words like “whore” or “cunt.”

When I’m performing in a scene with someone — or better yet, with my lover in my bedroom — I know that I’m not a whore or cunt in the degrading sense of the word and that the person I’m with doesn’t think of me that way, and because of this we can play with the taboo of that language in a way that changes the words — takes the negative power out of them. This kind of language is so charged and feels naughty to say, and that can be incredibly hot. So it works for me as a reclaiming act. That being said, I still can’t say the N-word myself.

I don’t know specifically how Jon Jon or Annette may have discussed the use of that word in the “Milk Nymphos” scene, but I do know that for Annette, because English wasn’t her first language, that word didn’t evoke all the connotations for her that it did for me. She always said it was much easier for her to say swear words or “dirty” words in English than in her native German. While the director Jay Sinn didn’t instruct her to say that, I know that she had been directed to use that kind of language on other sets.

Porn, I think, is sometimes dark because sex is sometimes dark — because people are sometimes dark. Of course, porn is also often lighthearted, funny, ugly, gorgeous and ridiculous. Human desires evolve out of our varied, complex experiences in the world. Sex is so basic to our humanity, and sexuality is an arena, like dreaming, that connects us to the parts of ourselves we don’t always fully understand or have words for. This is what makes sexuality fascinating and endlessly variable and certainly worth performing.

Whenever porn is publicly scrutinized, the issue of dehumanization arises. Many would see some of the extreme things you do onscreen as degrading. What’s your experience of it, though?

Well, I’ve had very few experiences on porn sets that I would classify as “degrading.” I’ve had infinitely more degrading experiences as a waitress or a barista in a chain coffeeshop than I’ve ever had on set. That, of course, has everything to do with working conditions and nothing to do with what I’m actually doing as my job.

I also don’t think you can take imagery out of context and say that it has inherent meaning — any interpretation of an image has to do with the social and cultural context in which it’s viewed. If we lived in a society in which women’s sexuality was celebrated, and was seen as usually proactive rather than usually passive, I don’t think people would jump so quickly to the concepts of exploitation and dehumanization when they thought of female performers.

That being said, I’m definitely interested in playing with objectification and power dynamics in my personal sex life as well as in my on-camera performances. During a performance, I might decide to “dehumanize” myself with a mask or blindfold in order to more deeply enter the fantasy of the scene.

In one version of his closing argument, defense attorney Paul Cambria said, “It’s always about context.” He described how he wouldn’t bring a copy of Playboy to dinner at his grandmother’s house, not because Playboy is obscene, but because it would be out of context. We are constantly choosing when and where to say or do things. In a performance, I might do any number of things that are appropriate in the context of the scene, but would have a different meaning if you viewed that performance as being an expression of who I am in my entirety.

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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